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Article - Opinion

Richard Sennett:
< The Disorder of Anarchy as A Beautiful Pattern

by Robert W. Lancaster

Often the best plan is to have no plan at all, or so the urban radical Richard Sennett tends to argue in his 1970's book The Uses of Disorder. The war in Viet Nam and the civil rights movements were the vanguard of social conscience by the adolescent in the 1960's.
Sennett, in recognizing the disruptive control anarchy attained over the adolescent, didactically explains that the more we allow for orderly and planned interaction that serves to instill a strict definition of humanism within the realm of the community, while the very infrastructure of our social potpourri is then segregated and the individual is propelled to a higher level individualism without the need of the community.
Affluence is the creature that forces the adult society to seek comfort in the form of rigid and planned interaction, and it is only through the new eyes of the adolescent that we can see affluence for the social wedge that it is, and the thread to repair society that it could be.

The counter-culture of the 1960's had a revolutionary effect on Sennett who would conclude that the chaos of true social disorder would offer the course of least resistance as a means to return individuals back to viable areas of social interaction, where the immediate emancipation of a modern society of formerly adolescent individuals would depend upon attaining "the freedom to accept and to live in disorder represents the goal which this generation has aimed for, vaguely and inchoately, in its search for 'community.'" (Sennett, p.xviii)

Sennett, an opponent to the rigid structuring and order that the 'planned' city offers society, is a proponent of a high level of disorder that a society slovenly awashed in a high level of anarchy. Planned order is argued as the negative force creates the one dimensionality of the Marcusian 'I' and is behind the current selfishness of the individual in society.
The 'We' of the whole, that constitutes the positive force that recreates communities, is lost to a comfortable and complacent society of individuals. Sennett thus challenges the individual to seek out the "'otherness' of the people around them," to regain the 'we' lost through actual community participation, taken by "the repression of deviants" that concocted the 'them' in society; silently expunging the 'I' from society and casting them out those "communities whose people fee related to each other by virtue of their sameness...." (Sennett, p.38; p.44)

But why search for a community of otherness when we have a society where the individual appears to have so much?

Anarchy, revolution against a legitimate government, is not an option; or at least that is what we are told 'by the powers that be.' However, as early as the 1920's, the pragmatist John Dewey who, when asked how democracy could be pursued without institutional change, would logically point out that in the 18th century, "The American revolution was a rebellion against an established government" and everyone seemed to logically agree with that outcome. (Dewey, p.87)

But those revolutionary Colonials were a hungry bunch, rich in interaction but poor in the affluence that material abundance allowed. High levels of affluence in our contemporary society have brought so many individual comforts to so many, until the individualistic society is no longer hungry. The adolescent craves this hunger of interaction. Yet, this hunger is suppressed by the conventions of an adult individualistic society, forcing the adolescent to become first insulated, then complacent, to the needs of the growing community that surrounds. It is then that the metamorphosis is complete.

Affluence, revered as a holy grail and sought by earlier generations, is now, by the 1960's, "becoming an intolerable weight to those who supposedly enjoy it," as it creates a false comfort of independence within the various individuals that has since evolved into a lack of socially interacted co-dependence, and thus is the source of the force that has led to this voluntary social degradation (Sennett, p. 188).
Sennett argues that "abundance in urban community life has only made it possible for this deep-down passion for slavery to express itself....What the past decades have taught us is not how rotten abundance as such is, but how rotten are the uses to which it is put." (Sennett, p.107)

Affluence has disenfranchised the individual, and borne a new type of poverty in our society, though "This is an emotional poverty rather than material poverty, and it is voluntary." (Sennett, p.107) The adolescent, by rejecting affluence and complacency, its companion, as the culprits that twain the community, volunteers to enhance social values over individualism. Yet, the adolescent who seeks out the social confrontation lost to the adult is too often forced to face reality alone.

Romanticizing the past brings to the forefront the crisis that has led to the ordering of simple sameness in society, that of the urban crisis, though the crisis is not the dying of the city nor attributive of a rush to the suburbs, but the death of the "multiplicity of 'contact points'" found on everyone's "Halstead Street" (Sennett, p.56).

The local markets and the social clubs, even the brothels and pool rooms, all set along side the churches, the schools, and residential dwellings, were the sub-cultures, the very adolescent-to-adult growth matrixes, that allowed for social intercourse within the community and the positive growth of adolescent to adult, where "Each piece of the city mosaic had a distinct character, but the pieces were 'open,' and this was what made life urban." (Sennett, p.57) Yet, it was the selfish individual, whose voluntary exodus to the suburbs would leave what was once open on Halstead Street closed for business.

Dull should never be a word applicable to the city. The powers that be within the cities must be made to recognize that centralization of planning policy must be taken away from the omnipresent planner who "can steel himself against the unknown outside world," and be returned to those social groups of individuals that live in it. (Sennett, p.8)

Too often, the adolescents of modern society are forced to gather on street corners to complain that 'there's nothing to do,' yet these adolescents are unwittingly compiling the results of the only uncoerced social interaction remaining, namely that of making and relaying a collective decision, though the conclusion, in relation to the multitude of choices available, may not be the popular nor the desired choice, but a collective decision none the less. (Sennett, p.8)

The city planners in fact shun spatial conglomeration, and soon, everyone's Halstead Street is razed by adult reasoning. With futures adolescents planned, they are then injected with high levels of social individualistic indoctrination inherent to previous adult generations, social detachment seeps in and supplants the inquisitive nature of the adolescent, thus continuing this closed social cycle. Over and over again, until boredom sets in. Societies of sameness know from experience that such massing forces individuals to realize the differences that exist, though such individual differences, if avoided, become social voids.

Disorder, onset by anarchy in its purest form, would surely offset the pure boredom of order. With revolutionary disorder, Sennett envisions survival communities as the new social norm. "I believe diverse communities do not arise spontaneously, nor are spontaneously maintained, but instead have to be created and urged into being." (Sennett, p.157)

And with that, Sennett offers this simple plan: revert from the extreme strict ordering of the bureaucratic city to the extreme chaos demanded by anarchy. Under the disorder of the new revolution, Sennett would severely mute the policing powers of the city, both the power inferred through its bureaucracy and then physically through the cop once on the beat. Violence, in this new anti-utopian community, would be addressed as an individual social issue, "where men must confront differences around them," where the arguments and violence of "disorder is better than dead, predetermined planning..." (Sennett, p.139, p.142)

To hell with those pseudo-professionals of the real estate industry who falsely argue for "homogeneity...because people feel uncomfortable unless they know that their neighbors are mostly like themselves." (Sennett, p. 160) Such argument is simply a thinly disguised ploy to sell housing in most conforming economy of scale example available as homogeneity is the plan of the city planners to neatly segregate individuals into individual groups for the ease of maintaining urban control.

The disordered city would indeed be chaotic to the blinded adults in the urban bureaucracy, though in such a "complex city, the new eyes of the adolescent would find nothing out of place. Complexity brought on by disorder would offer an inchoate society where "a young person must become an active being, a man, and not an abstract thinker discoursing on the evils of society at large." (Sennett, p.145)

And these adolescents in the new disordered city would miss the decentralization indoctrination of the old ordered city, thus allowed to grow and become new, now-aware adults. The new city of disorder is where "Men would find in the places where they worked community problems and community experiences, as well as community conflicts...," where everyone's Halstead Street would return and again provide the necessary "Multiple points of contact with different elements in a city diffuse hostility...." (Sennett, p.156, p.155)

Sennett targets the "omniscient" city planners, who ironically with "the projection of a rigid group self-image similar in its motivation to the rigid individual self-images seen in the young revolutionary," have, over the course of the 20th century, groped but for one purpose for life. (Sennett, p.100, p.7-8)
These paternalistic planners, then with slide-rules in their hands, and now with computers on their laps, have retained but one goal for the future projective needs of all components of any society, be it the development of roads, issues of zoning, or urban renewal: simply to simplify social life to its purest; to make it easier for the "ideal person" to get from point A to point B. (Sennett, p.23)

Diversity, to the city planners, is the enemy, but shoot before you see the whites of its eyes. But getting from point A to point B should always be more than just a couple of dots on a comprehensive plan. In fact, point A for Sennett is symbolic of the positive force of adolescence that "is commonly thought to be a period of wandering and exploration" and is a time of the individual's life that knows no boundaries; the whole world but an oyster. (Sennett, p.13)
Yet, when the plate of the planned city is filled with the omnipresent comprehensive structuring of city planners who continually bombard society with high level grafts of the sterility inherent in individuality as a positive, such a course "unavoidably" overwhelms the adolescent who is then transformed into just another underwhelmed adult who "has learned how to exclude disorder and painful disruption for the conscious consideration." (Sennett, p.20-1)

Sennett's point B is the negative force of the adult, who not only has been absolved from his adolescent uniqueness, but is now, thanks to our righteous city planners, no longer expected to interact with any other individuals in a social capacity, restricting the choice of social intercourse and/or discourse available to the individual, rendering the individual to raise his own adolescent without the benefit of interdependence of unstructured social interaction.
Growth from the inquisitive adolescent to the continually-informed adult is planned out the fabric of the city. If the question is how long will the individuals of society be able to suppress the Freudian inner-child that was once native within us all, the answer, according to the latest statistics just in from Planning & Zoning, is perpetuity. If a society of individuals is to return to the status of a community, Sennett argues that we must devolve. Indeed, we must ask how to reverse the process.

For Sennett, the city planners simply must fail at a policy that is bound in the simplicity of structured order. "Instead of planning for some abstract urban whole, planners are going to have to work for the concrete parts of the city, the different classes, ethnic groups, and races it contains." (Sennett, p.102)
The plan of the planners must be changed, returned the wants and needs of a people who once "actively involved in shaping their social lives" and not held hostage by, and for, the individual (Sennett, p.100)
Sennett agrees with Lewis Mumford who said "that it is necessary to learn to use tools in humane ways, not abandon them in order to be humane." (Sennett, p.86-7) Sennett thus envisions revolution as the tool, and anarchy as the desired humane result.

It will take a great deal of work to return that individual society back in a community, often more work than the community is willing to put forth, though the affluence of society is in place. Sennett agrees that decentralization will cause great fragmentation in the pollical forum, but "when people become active, they begin evaluating political power in terms of effective networks, because they have defined for themselves their needs or their desires in terms of action... The more powerful the process of rejecting, the more complete, the more purging an event it would be." (Sennett, p.168; p.173)

Bureaucracies can be altered, and those in the positions of city power should learn the two new terms that have been worn out in the modern public sector: down-sizing and out-sourcing. To the city powers, we should be inspired by Peter Finches' most stunning, and oft quoted, soliloquy from the movie Network, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" and take back the cities that, before the negative onset of affluence and individuality of the 20th century, belonged to us.

In American society today, the battle against the boredom of affluence must take the forefront as the preeminent issue facing the people as a whole, for we live in a society of such affluence that even the poor have well defined levels. Oliver Goldsmith, in The Deserted Village, proffers a most powerful forecast, to Sennett's disordered vision with

        Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
        The rich mans's joys encrease, the poor's decay
        'Tis yours to judge, how wide the limits stand
        Between a splendid and an happy land.

And without decentralization, without at least a measure of disorder, without an end to a planned urban boredom that is supported by rampant, planned affluence, without ending the vicious social cycle that robs our adolescent and adult, then there will be no one socially correct individual left with the sufficient social insight that is befitting an 'affluent' adolescent "to judge."


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